Getchell on Blumenau and Hanhimäki and Zanchetta, 'New Perspectives on the End of the Cold War: Unexpected Transformations?'

Bernhard Blumenau, Jussi M. Hanhimäki, Barbara Zanchetta, eds.
Michelle Getchell

Bernhard Blumenau, Jussi M. Hanhimäki, Barbara Zanchetta, eds. New Perspectives on the End of the Cold War: Unexpected Transformations? Cold War History Series. New York: Routledge, 2018. 242 pp. $155.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-138-73134-9.

Reviewed by Michelle Getchell (US Naval War College) Published on H-Diplo (August, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

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As the title of this short edited volume indicates, the three decades since the Cold War ended have provided opportunities for scholars to examine new perspectives on transformations that may or may not have been—as the subtitle asks—unexpected. The publication of this volume suggests that the historiography of the end of the Cold War has advanced beyond stale debates over “winners” and “losers” and is now well into a more productive phase, one that seeks to transcend oversimplified versions of the multidimensional superpower conflict that defined international relations for nearly half a century. Indeed, as the question mark in the subtitle implies, some of the transformations spotlighted here were predictable when viewed from the correct vantage point. One of the strengths of this collection is its placement of the events of the late Cold War within a longer-term historical narrative.

It should be noted at the outset that the new perspectives explored in this volume are overwhelmingly European and elite. This should hardly come as a surprise given that the editors hold positions at the University of St. Andrews, the Graduate Institute at Geneva, and King’s College London, respectively, and that the contributors also mostly represent European institutions. This is not meant as a criticism of the collection but merely as a delineation of its scope for interested readers. Those seeking non-European, non-elite perspectives should look elsewhere. Scholars focusing on the end of the Cold War in Europe would be well served by a perusal of these essays.

The collection adds to historians’ knowledge in three meaningful ways. The first is through an illumination of the influence of selected policymakers whose roles have previously been under-examined. Jussi M. Hanhimäki, for instance, contributes a piece on the intellectual influence of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who have no doubt been the subject of much scholarly debate. He demonstrates, however, that the contrast between the two has been overdrawn and that their policy recommendations to US President George H. W. Bush were startlingly similar. Although neither Brzezinski nor Kissinger served the Bush administration in an official capacity, they continued to wield influence in foreign policymaking through unofficial consultations with successive presidents, up to and including Donald Trump. Wolfgang Mueller reexamines German reunification through the eyes of Eduard Shevardnadze and Anatoly Chernyaev, whom he dubs “secondary political actors in ending the Cold War” (p. 69). The emphasis on second-tier actors brings to the fore the agency of Europeans themselves, which is a refreshing change of pace from dominant narratives that focus primarily on the superpower competition. Maximilian Graf’s essay on European détente and Maria Eleanora Guasconi’s piece on European political cooperation are especially illuminating on this score, foregrounding the beliefs and actions of European actors who made significant contributions to the processes that ultimately ended the Cold War.

The book’s focus on European actors and agency highlights a second area where the volume excels: situating the developments of the late Cold War in a longer-term framework in which the significance of the Cold War is measured alongside historical epochs defined by other no less meaningful configurations of international relations. Bernhard Blumenau’s essay on German foreign policy and the “German problem” is especially enlightening in this context. Fritz Bartel’s chapter on the role of the International Monetary Fund in democratic transitions in Poland and Hungary is also a useful reminder to historians that transformations can occur “through the power of omission rather than the power of commission” (p. 217). The piece is also an interesting analysis of the interplay between structural factors and individual decision making.

The third area to which this book adds expertise is nuclear arms control. James Graham Wilson contributes a brief analysis of the Nuclear and Space Arms Talks in Geneva, which he argues vindicated George Shultz’s approach to Cold War diplomacy during his tenure as US secretary of state. Shultz sought to incorporate human rights issues into US-Soviet negotiations while delinking arms control from unrelated disputes, such as continued Soviet support for Cuba and Nicaragua. In one of the book’s more intriguing chapters, Andrea Chiampan charts a paradigm shift in the way people thought about nuclear power, as both a “local hazard” to human health and the environment, and as the “global threat” of proliferation and concomitant increased risk of nuclear war (p. 48). These were two sides of the same coin, argues Chiampan, and emerged in tandem as part of an ideological shift that presaged and eventually culminated in President Ronald Reagan’s “nuclear abolitionism” (p. 62). This chapter sits at the intersection of cultural, intellectual, diplomatic, and environmental history, and contributes to the burgeoning literature on Reagan, anti-nuclear activism, and the end of the Cold War.[1]

This collection is a timely reminder that although the literature on the end of the Cold War appears to have reached critical mass, with many new works redefining the contours of scholarly inquiry, there is still much to be done and many new perspectives to be uncovered. Those presented here, however, are mostly peripheral ones that will augment but not fundamentally challenge or reshape our understanding of the end of the Cold War.


[1]. See, for instance, William M. Knoblauch, Nuclear Freeze in a Cold War: The Reagan Administration, Cultural Activism, and the End of the Arms Race (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2017); Henry Maar, “The Challenge of Peace: Ronald Reagan, Public Opinion, and the Movement to Freeze the Arms Race” (PhD diss., University of California – Santa Barbara, 2015); and Angela Santese, “Ronald Reagan, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign and the Nuclear Scare of the 1980s,” International History Review 39, no. 3 (2017): 496-520.

Citation: Michelle Getchell. Review of Blumenau, Bernhard; Hanhimäki, Jussi M.; Zanchetta, Barbara, eds., New Perspectives on the End of the Cold War: Unexpected Transformations?. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL:

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